Clean innovation will be increasingly critical to Canada's economic and environmental wellbeing in a changing world. On March 31, 2015, Sustainable Prosperity and partners brought together Canadian and global experts from academia, industry, government, and NGOs to discuss how Canada can accelerate the pace of clean innovation across all parts of the economy, with a particular focus on the key role that governments can play -- through smart policy, investment, spending, etc. The videos of the conference sessions are now available. For each week in June, a new blog will be posted, covering each of the 4 conference sessions. This is Blog Post 4 of 4 (Click for Post 1, Post 2 and Post 3).

After a full day spent discussing Canada’s track record on innovation, our potential to accelerate clean innovation, the policy levers available to make it happen and the practical experience from industry and academia, the question facing our final panel was ultimately – do we want to do things differently and drive greener growth? With clean innovation, that is the choice facing Canadians – are we happy, as Gord Lambert summarizes it, to “play the old game incrementally better?” or are we seeking something bigger and bolder? Given the economic and environmental risks and rewards at stake, the answer certainly seems to be to go big and bold, provided we have the right research to support good decision-making.

And that’s where the work should begin. According to the Session 4 panelists (Marisa Beck, Phd candidate; Gord Lambert, Suncor Sustainability Executive in Residence at the Ivey Business School and Stewart Elgie, University of Ottawa and Sustainable Prosperity), excellence in environmental sustainability, innovative use of natural resources and economic strength requires big and bold leadership. That’s where the public role comes in – how do we get Canadian governments of all levels to set objectives, prioritize and synchronize their efforts and adjust public policies to seize the environmental and economic opportunities available? According to the panelists, it requires both big thinking and specific narrower research efforts – with lots of different partners kicking in and pushing for true collaboration.

The first step to get this research and collaboration accelerated is to recognize that clean innovation is different than other types of innovation in other parts of the economy. Beyond the regular challenges inherent in accelerating innovation, clean innovation also suffers from the additional market failure of the environment. As Stewart Elgie noted, “the thing we’re trying to innovate around doesn’t have a market price for the most part.” As a result, government has even a larger role in accelerating clean innovation.

Pricing environmental harm and “pulling” innovation is clearly part of the solution. But the “push” side is required too. Governments are making efforts to do this, through tax incentives and targeted initiatives. But it’s largely the easiest policy changes that are made, not the most critical ones. Beyond doing more, we need to ensure that push and pull policies are aligned and working together for maximum impact. We may also need new partnerships and new institutions – somewhat removed from government – to carry out parts of this work. Designing these for maximum impact is a worthy challenge in and of itself.

As Marisa Beck pointed out, efforts to accelerate clean innovation must start at the very basics, with clear definitions and solid policy research foundations upon which to set objectives and determine the right performance metrics with which to measure our progress. And the role for government is not a passive role, but an active one. As Stewart Elgie summarized it, there are 3 Cs to guide us.

  • First, we need clever ideas. Canada has strength in our industry, academia and think tanks, that could be directed to work on these questions; at the same time, we need to develop more expertise and new scholars who will take on these critically important research areas.
  • Second, we need to connect those clever ideas with the decision-makers who determine our public policies. The right interdisciplinary research has the potential to produce policy implications of immediate relevance, but it’s only of use if it gets into the hands of decision-makers in a timely way. Connections between universities, think tanks and government facilitate this.
  • Finally, the debate itself needs to be changed. The opportunities available through the acceleration of clean innovation are enormous, but a cautious, outdated vision for Canada’s future can hold us back. We need to change the national debate to focus instead on greener growth and the recognition that embracing clean innovation can bring environmental and economic returns.
  • If Canada wants to be a leader in green growth and to accelerate clean innovation – by setting some key objectives and working together across stakeholders, decision-makers, academics and industry to effect the policy changes needed to realize those objectives – then it will be critical to accelerate the research agenda and to accelerate the public discourse.

    Through this conference, Sustainable Prosperity and partners have started a dialogue about these questions, work we anticipate continuing as a multi-year effort. We’ll continue to disseminate our research findings, pose questions for further research, and reach out to new collaborators and funders. If you’re interested in joining us in these efforts, please contact me (